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Old Soldiers: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Monday, June 27, 2005 18:22 EDT



    "God, what a beautiful evening," Adrian Agnelli said softly.

    #He sat with his guests under a sky which was rapidly settling into the deep, cobalt blue vault of oncoming night. The distant mutter of waves came from behind him, rolling up over the lip of the bluff overlooking the ocean they hadn't yet gotten around to naming. In front of him, on the western horizon, the last fragments of day blazed in a crimson conflagration beyond the peaks of the inland mountains which fenced in the coastal plateau they'd chosen for the site of the City of Landing. Agnelli had hoped for a name with a bit more imagination, but tradition had carried the day. And it didn't really matter to him as he watched the sun-struck clouds fuming up about the sharp-edged peaks like the smoke of some stupendous bonfire. The brightest stars of unfamiliar constellations were already dimly visible overhead, and the larger of Indrani's two sizable moons was also visible, high in the eastern sky.

    The ruins of an early supper littered the snow-white tablecloth with pillaged plates and looted bottles of wine. The food had come from the store rooms and hydroponics sections of the colony ships, not yet from the soil of their new homeworld, but the brilliant-hued floral arrangements at the center of the table had been put together out of some of Indrani's spectacular, tropical-climate flowers.

    There weren't very many guests. The Governor himself, his daughter Allison, Lieutenant Governor Berthier, Brigadier Jeffords, Maneka, and Edmund Hawthorne. Over the often seemingly endless months of the voyage here, the six of them had become a tight-knit, efficiently functioning command team for the colony effort. The last two months, as the colony began to become an actual living, breathing entity, had been exhausting for all of them, yet Maneka often thought that there were no words in any human language to express the satisfaction all of them took from their demanding duties.

    Even me. Maybe especially me. She glanced sideways at Hawthorne's profile and felt a warm glow deep inside her. I joined the Brigade because I believed in what it stands for, and I still do. But I've seen enough death and destruction to last me for two or three lifetimes. It's so . . . unspeakably wonderful to see my efforts contributing to life for a change.

    She looked around. The table sat on a terrace behind the rapidly rising shell of what would become Landing's combined town hall and Governor's residence. At the moment, it didn't look particularly prepossessing, but Maneka had seen the plans. It would be a gracious structure when it was completed, and the people who'd designed it had been careful to provide for the inevitable growth it would suffer as the colony's population grew and government and its service organizations grew with it.

    The rest of Landing's first-flight structures were going up with equal speed. Despite all the industrial and economic strains under which the Concordiat labored in its desperate battle with the Melconians, it had spared no expense when it came to equipping the colony fleet. Unlike many privately-funded colonizing expeditions, this one was lavishly provided with highly capable automated construction and earthmoving equipment, including no less than seven ceramacrete fusers. One of those fusers was still rolling quietly along under the control of its rudimentary AI, running lights lit and proximity sensors alert for any human inept enough to get in its way, as it moved back and forth, lating down the almost indestructible ceramacrete paving of what would become Landing's central square. Other self-directed machines continued to work on the other buildings currently under construction, and piles of building materials marked where still more structured would shortly rise.

    The colony's originally targeted population of approximately twenty-two thousand had been reduced to barely fifteen thousand by the Melconian attack. At the moment, almost all of them were down on the surface, housed in the prefab, temporary housing military units (called "Quonset huts," for some reason Maneka had never been able to track down, even searching Lazarus' files). The Quonsets weren't particularly palatial, but they were infinitely preferable to the cramped accommodations aboard the transports. And, unlike the transports' quarters, their inhabitants could open the front door, step outside, and suck in a huge lungful of fresh, pollen- and dust-laden, unrecycled air.

    Unlike some military bases Maneka had seen, the Quonsets on Indrani really would be "temporary," too. At the current rate of construction, Berthier, who was in charge of that particular endeavor, estimated that permanent housing for the entire population would be completed within seven months. Not all of that housing would have all of the amenities Core World citizens were accustomed to, but those could always be added once the orbital industrial platforms could begin devoting capacity to something besides self-expansion and the production of basic necessities.

    "I can hardly believe how quickly all of this is coming together," Maneka said, waving her wine glass in a semicircle to indicate the city appearing out of nowhere all about them.

    "Careful planning back home," Agnelli said. "Too many colonies exhaust their economic resources just arranging their initial transportation to their new homes. They have to skimp on their equipment budgets, or even rely on old-fashioned hand labor to establish their initial infrastructure. We've got the quality of automated support you might find in a major city on one of the Core Worlds, if on a smaller scale, so it's no wonder things are going well. In fact, we'd be doing even better if we hadn't lost Star Conveyor."

    "Yes, we would," his daughter agreed quietly.

    He looked at her quickly, his expression silently apologizing for reminding her of what had happened to Kuan Yin , but she only shook her head and looked back with a slightly sad smile. In many ways, Maneka sometimes thought, Allison had actually adjusted better to her husband's death than the Governor had. Then again, she'd discovered, Adrian Agnelli took any death personally. It was his job to see to it that death was something that didn't happen to the people for whom he was responsible, and he took that responsibility very seriously indeed.

    And speaking of responsibilities . . .

    "Allison was telling me this afternoon that the agricultural terraforming is already ahead of schedule, Sir," she said to Agnelli.

    "Yes, it is," the Governor agreed, giving his daughter a quick smile of mingled pride and thanks. The colony's chief agonomist had been aboard Keillor's Ferry, and Allison had taken responsibility for that aspect of the colonization effort. It wasn't exactly her area of specialization, but she'd quickly identified half a dozen improvements which had helped expedite the process.

    "We should be putting in our first locally-grown crops within the next couple of months," he continued, returning his gaze to Maneka. "While I know some of us would have preferred a rather cooler climate," he grinned as she grimaced at his jibe, "locating this close to the equator gives us effectively year-round growing seasons. So even though our initial cultivated area is going to be restricted by the need to seed it with the proper Terran microorganisms and bacteria, we ought to be almost completely independent of shipboard hydroponics and stored rations within the first local year."

    "That's what's Allison was telling me," Maneka agreed. "And I also had a discussion with Henri --" she nodded at Berthier "-- and Ed about the industrial side, as well. Things seem to be going just as well on that side."

    "Not quite," Berthier disagreed mildly. "What happened to Star Conveyor is hurting us worse up there --" he pointed an index finger at the steadily brightening disk of the visible moon "-- than it is down here. She had one of our two complete orbital smelter plants on board. Worse, she had two-thirds of the extraction boats that were supposed to handle the asteroid mining for us, and that's putting a crimp in our expansion rate. We've diverted some additional effort to building more of the boats we need, but that's going to take considerably longer than building housing units."

    "Agreed," Maneka acknowledged. "On the other hand, I think I heard you'd managed to find yourself a truck driver to help speed things up a bit."

    She grinned at Hawthorne, who made a ferocious face and growled something under his breath.

    "That's one way to put it," Berthier said with a little smile of his own. "The transit time to and from the asteroid belt is part of what's costing us productivity. The extraction boats are fully automated, so they don't suck off any manpower, but they have to make the complete round trip from the belt to Indrani orbit. I'd considered moving the primary smelter closer to the belt, but you shot that one down on security grounds, Madam Generalissimo. So I'm stealing your transport right out from under you."

    And my boyfriend, Maneka added mentally.

    "Thermopylae's got a lot of heavy-lift capability," Berthier continued. "If we send her out to the belt and let the boats we have shuttle back and forth between her and their extraction sites, she can play freighter and haul the raw materials in to the smelter. By cutting transit times, we estimate we'll improve the productivity curve on the extractor boats by almost thirty percent. It won't fully compensate us for Star Conveyor's destruction, but it will sure help."

    "I know." Maneka nodded. "That's why I agreed to let you have her. But despite that, I take it we're all in agreement that the colony appears to be well on its way to becoming firmly established? And that all of the problems currently in sight are essentially production bottlenecks, which are going to get smoothed out in the very near future?"

    Agnelli looked at her a bit speculatively, but his daughter and Berthier both returned Maneka's nod.

    "Good," she said. "Because, that being true, I believe it's time that we make the transition to civilian control."

    Agnelli's expression sharpened, and she gave him an oddly serious grin.

    "I realize certain parties were initially concerned over any Napoleon complexes which might lurk in the murky depths of my psyche. However, after spending the last year and half as the Mistress after God of all I survey, nothing would please me more than to hand responsibility over to our duly appointed Governor and our soon-to-be-elected Assembly. Just tending to the military side of things will be enough for Peter and me."

    She raised her glass in a lighthearted toast to Brigadier Jeffords, and he chuckled as he returned it.

    "My God, the woman's serious!" Agnelli said with a laugh. "Actually, Maneka, my concerns over your tyranny potential disappeared months and months ago. On the other hand, I've observed that you're one of those people with compulsive energy levels. Are you sure you're ready to step down?"

    "Positive. It's not like I won't be able to find things to do, after all. Lazarus and I are still finishing up the mapping project, you know."



    Heads nodded, and she suppressed a smile at some of the expressions around the table. Some of the colony's civilian leaders, she knew, cherished the private opinion that she was more than a little paranoid. But Agnelli wasn't one of them -- a fact which would have surprised her when responsibility for the colony's military security first thundered down on her shoulders. The Governor had staunchly supported her military survey for the best site for Landing, and he'd been just as supportive of her decision to use Lazarus' reconnaissance satellites and remote-mapping drones to do a complete, detailed, ground-level topographical map of every square meter of terrain within two thousand kilometers of Landing. She was confident that they'd identified every practical approach route an attacking ground force might follow on its way through the mountains, and now they were most of the way through deep-scan radar mapping of each of those routes, as well.

    "I do know that," Agnelli agreed now. "But you'll be done with that in a week or two. Is running our military establishment -- such as it is, and what there is of it -- after that, in the absence of any known external threats, going to be enough to keep you busy?"

    "More than enough," she assured him, and the serious note in her voice surprised even her just a bit. She shook herself and chuckled.

    "I joined the Brigade right out of high school, Adrian," she told him, using the first name she was usually careful to avoid, at least on "business" occasions. "They put me through the Academy, and they commissioned me, and by the time I was completing my senior-year tactical problems, it was pretty obvious the war with the Puppies was going to get nothing but nastier."

    Her expression grew darker, and she gazed down into her wine glass.

    "None of my graduating class really planned on living to retire," she said quietly. "The loss rate among forward-deployed Bolos was heavy enough that we could all do the math on our fingers and toes. The odds of someone in my graduating class surviving to the age of thirty-five were only one in three. The odds of actually reaching retirement age -- assuming anyone was allowed to retire -- were less than one in fifty. And those odds are going to get steadily worse as Ragnorak and whatever the Puppies call their version of it grind away. If they weren't, none of us would be out here."

    The mood around the table had sobered, and she looked up to meet her friends' eyes.

    "When they detailed Guthrie and me-- and Lazarus and Mickey -- to this duty, I think we both felt almost as guilty as we felt grateful. Don't get me wrong. I know why the Concordiat and the Brigade assigned both of us here. Letting some preventable external threat destroy this colony when a couple of Bolos old enough to make them second-tier assets at the front could have prevented it would have been criminally negligent. And it's an important assignment, even if -- as we all hope -- neither Lazarus nor Mickey ever has to fire another shot in anger. But it gave us an out. It was a way for us to have a damned good chance at survival, and because we were selected for the assignment rather than seeking it, we can even tell ourselves that we never tried to save our own skins.

    "There have been moments when living with that realization has been . . . difficult," she said, her voice even quieter, and Hawthorne reached over to squeeze her hand -- her right hand -- under cover of the table.

    "It's one I'm sure we all share, in our own ways," Allison told her gently. "You Brigade officers -- and Navy officers, like Ed -- were more in the line of fire. Targeted, I suppose you might say, because it was your job to go where the fighting was. But it's been obvious for years now that eventually the fighting was going to come to all of us. That's why Bill and I --" her voice faltered only slightly as she spoke her dead husband's name "-- had decided against having children. We both wanted them, and I know Dad wanted grandchildren." She gave her father a slightly misty smile. "But we weren't going to bring children into a galaxy which seemed intent on stamping them out of existence before they ever reached adulthood."

    She paused for a moment, then looked directly into Maneka's eyes in the gathering darkness.

    "You and Lieutenant Chin and Ed were assigned to this, just as Dad was. I wasn't. Dad didn't give me any details when they chose him for this. He's always taken security classifications seriously, and I can understand why the government wouldn't want news of Seed Corn to get out. Even if the Melconians didn't hear about it, the effect on civilian morale would be devastating.

    "But I've known him all my life, and I knew he'd been in line for a colonial governorship for at least two years before the war started. So when he suddenly couldn't talk to me anymore about where he might be sent, or what he might be doing, it wasn't all that hard to figure out what was going on. And when Fred Staunton, Dad's boss at the Office of Colonization, turned up at the hospital asking for volunteers for an unspecified 'special mission,' I volunteered on the spot, for Bill as well as for me. So unlike you, I did 'try to save my own skin.' I'm not ashamed that I did. And I would far rather be sitting here, with my father and with the rest of you, than still waiting for the Melconians to reach Schilling's World. But that doesn't mean I don't feel guilty about all the millions upon millions of other civilians, other Allison Agnellis, who will never have the opportunity to do the same thing."

    Silence hovered around the table for almost a full minute, and then the Governor reached out and patted his daughter's hand gently.

    "I wanted to tell you," he said softly. "And I'm not at all sure I wouldn't have broken down and done just that, security or no. But I didn't have to, because you were sharp enough to put two and two together on your own. And unlike you, I don't feel a trace of guilt at having you sitting here. I only regret that Bill isn't sitting here with us. And that the two of you will never have those grandkids of mine after all."

    She turned her hand palm-up under his, catching his fingers and squeezing them tightly.

    "I miss him, too," she half-whispered, blinking back tears. But then she smiled. She gave her father's hand one last squeeze, then sat back and picked up her wine glass once again.

    "I miss him," she said, her slightly tremulous voice almost normal. "And I wish he were here, and I wish the two of us together would be raising our children. But we will give you those grandchildren, Dad. Both of us made deposits to the gene bank. Priority for the artificial wombs is going to be hard to come by until we can replace everything we lost with Kuan Yin, but assisted pregnancies are well within our present capabilities. Which is why in about another thirty-four Standard Weeks you're going to be a grandfather after all."

    Deep, incandescent joy blazed in Agnelli's eyes, and he leaned over and kissed her cheek.

    "That . . . that's wonderful news," he told her. "News I'd never hoped to hear."

    His voice was deep and husky, and he cleared his throat, then took a sip of wine.

    "Congratulations, Allison," Maneka said, raising her own glass in salute, and other glasses rose all around the table.

    "Thank you." Allison might actually have blushed just a bit -- it was difficult to tell in the gathering darkness -- but her voice was completely back to normal, and she pointed a finger at Maneka.

    "And what about you, young lady?" she demanded.

    "Me?" Maneka blinked.

    "This colony is going to need as much genetic diversity as it can get. And people acceptable for duty with the Dinochrome Brigade tend to be the sort of people whose genes you'd like to conserve in the population."

    "I . . . really hadn't thought about it," Maneka said, not entirely honestly. In fact, not even mostly honestly, she told herself sternly.

    "Well start thinking about it," Allison commanded. "And if you can't think of a genetic partner you'd like to share the experience with," she looked rather pointedly at Hawthorne, "I'm sure someone on the medical staff would be able to arrange a blind match for you."

    "If -- all right, when -- it's time for that decision to be made, I'll make it myself, thank you," Maneka told her firmly, glad the fading light hid the blush she felt warming her face.

    "Just don't let the grass grow under you," Allison said, a touch of seriousness coloring her voice and expression once more. "I think Bill and I made the right decision, back before this opportunity --" she waved at the newborn colony's rising buildings "-- presented itself. But if we hadn't waited, if we'd gone ahead and had children anyway, then I'd have at least some memory of him with them, and they might have some memory of him, as well. We're out from under the Melconian threat out here, but that doesn't make any of us immortal, Maneka."




    "Is the Brigade ready, Colonel Na-Salth?" Ka-Frahkan asked formally.

    "Yes, Sir," Jesmahr Na-Salth replied. The colonel was the 3172nd Heavy Assault Brigade's executive officer, and Ka-Frahkan's deputy commander. It was his job to hand the Brigade over to Ka-Frahkan as a smoothly functioning machine, ready for instant action, and he was good at his job.

    "I'll let Colonel Na-Lythan begin the briefing, if you permit, Sir," Na-Salth continued, and Ka-Frahkan's ears flicked agreement.

    "Colonel?" Na-Salth said then, turning to the officer who commanded the armored regiment which was the true heart of the Brigade's combat power."

    "I have the readiness reports on our combat mechs for your perusal, General," Na-Lythan said. "The fact that Major Na-Huryin didn't survive cryo sleep has created some problems in the Reconnaissance Battalion, but otherwise our table of organization is actually in excellent shape. We're understrength, of course, but not sufficiently to compromise our combat worthiness. And the latest report from our medical officers confirms that all personnel are fully recovered from cryo and fit for action."

    "Excellent," Ka-Frahkan said heartily. The loss rate Na-Tharla had predicted if he used the emergency cryo facilities had actually been low. Almost twelve percent of his Brigade's personnel had never waked up again. He was fortunate that Na-Huryin was the only really critical officer Na-Lythan had lost, but despite Na-Lythan's confident assessment, Ka-Frahkan knew the missing links in all of his units' chains of command had to have at least some consequences for their combat readiness.

    What's that Human saying about "silver linings?" he thought with mordant humor. I suppose it applies here, doesn't it? After all, at least the lower troop strength gave us a little longer to get everyone physically into shape for operations before our food runs out.

    He gave a mental snort at the direction of his own reflections, then turned to Colonel Verank Ka-Somal, Na-Lythan's counterpart for the Brigade's infantry regiment.

    "May I assume your troopers are equally ready for combat, Colonel?" he asked.

    "Yes, Sir!" Ka-Somal barked. His eyes glittered, and Ka-Frahkan gazed at him thoughtfully for just a moment.

    Ka-Somal's home world of Rasantha was one of the ones the Humans had burned clean of all life. His entire family -- including his wife and four children -- had been wiped away in that attack, and the loss had seared itself deeply into the colonel's heart and soul. For him, the upcoming attack was not a combat mission but one of holy vengeance, and the general wondered -- not for the first time -- if that might lead him to overestimate his troops' readiness. Probably not, he decided. Besides, he'd been following the medical and training reports all along, and they seemed to agree with Ka-Somal's assessment.

    "And the air cavalry?" Ka-Frahkan said, looking at Major Beryak Na-Pahrthal.

    "We stand ready, Sir," the acting commander of his air cavalry regiment said, just a bit stiffly. Colonel Ka-Tharnak, the air cavalry's CO had been among the Brigade's more senior losses. Na-Pahrthal, who'd commanded the regiment's First Battalion, had found himself wearing two hats, as the regiment's commander, as well. He was a good officer, and in many ways more mentally flexible than Ka-Tharnak had been, but he'd never expected to be handed full responsibility for an entire air cavalry regiment, and he seemed a bit more anxious than Ka-Frahkan would have preferred.

    "Good," the general said, projecting as much combined confidence and assurance as he could. Then he turned to the most junior officer seated at the conference table.

    "I know I need not ask you if your people are ready, Captain," he said, smiling at Rahlan Ka-Paldyn.

    "No, Sir, you don't," Ka-Paldyn agreed. The Army captain commanded the Brigade's attached special operations section. They were the ones who would be tasked with the most critical part of the opening operation. And, unfortunately, they'd been hit particularly hard by cryo sleep losses. Ka-Paldyn had been forced to consolidate his three out-sized platoons into only two, which had cramped Ka-Frahkan's options. But Ka-Paldyn had served with the Brigade since the day he joined as an officer cadet, straight out of the Imperial Army School. This would be his fifth campaign with Ka-Frahkan, and the general had total confidence in him and his special operations troopers.

    "Good. I'm pleased -- pleased with all of you," Ka-Frahkan said now, looking around the circle of his senior officers one more time with a fierce challenge grin. Then he sobered.

    "I'm pleased because the time has come for us to strike," he said, his voice flatter and harder, and he saw the stiffening of spines, the gleaming edges of canines shown in half-instinctive challenge, as the others absorbed his announcement.

    Death Ascending was carefully hidden on one of the moons of the gas giant orbiting twenty-four light-minutes outside the system's asteroid belt. The assault transport had been concealed there ever since Ka-Frahkan had discussed his basic plan with Captain Na-Tharla, but the Brigade's stealthy remote reconnaissance platforms had kept a careful eye on events in orbit around the distant planet the Humans had chosen for their new home.

    "The enemy," Ka-Frahkan resumed after a moment, "has clearly settled in comfortably. Of their transports, two have been disassembled into industrial modules. A third has also been broken down into three sub-modules which we originally believed were industrial platforms but have since concluded are intended as the core structures for orbital habitats. Captain Na-Tharla's best estimate from the recon platforms' take is that one of them is intended to become the central control facility for the Humans' eventual space-going infrastructure. The other two --" he let his eyes circle the table "-- look suspiciously like the command-and-control modules for orbital forts."

    He paused, letting the silence linger, until Na-Lythan broke it.

    "That would make sense, Sir," the armor commander said. "One mistake the enemy isn't going to make is to skimp on orbital defenses. They obviously feel they're presently secure, but whoever planned this operation is unlikely to leave anything to chance."

    "Agreed," Ka-Frahkan replied. "On the other hand, there's no indication that they're currently working on these modules. My own belief is that they'll rely upon the Bolo they've maintained in orbit for their immediate security. It will probably be some time -- possibly even several years -- before they have the industrial capacity to begin manufacturing the weapons such forts would require.

    "More significant, I think, is the fact that the emissions signatures of most of their ships indicate that they're operating with reduced power generation. Captain Na-Tharla has confirmed my own suspicion that this indicates they've taken their drive rooms off-line. Obviously, it wouldn't take them long to reactivate the power plants they've currently shut down, but it's yet another indication that they're not prepared for an immediate evacuation in the event of a sudden threat. And," he smiled coldly, "it greatly increases our odds of taking those ships intact for our own use.

    "Rahlan, Jesmahr, and I have discussed at some length how best to approach the Human shipping capability in light of our current assessment of its readiness states. Obviously, our first priority must be the orbiting Bolo. That Bolo isn't attempting to remain covert. Its active sensors are on-line, which has helped us to positively identify its transport, and we must assume a high level of readiness on its part. However, it hasn't reacted to the sensor platforms we've been using to observe the enemy's activities, and Captain Ka-Paldyn assures me that the signatures of his troopers' EW suits are substantially less than those of the platforms."

    "Excuse me, Sir," Na-Pahrthal said.

    "Yes, Beryak?"

    "I realize that the EW suits are extremely stealthy," the air cavalry commander said slowly, "but while the special ops boats are very difficult to detect under normal circumstances, are they not considerably less stealthy than our reconnaissance platforms?"

    "They are," Ka-Frahkan said, his voice turning graver. "That, however, won't be an issue. Captain Ka-Paldyn's Second Platoon has volunteered to carry out the operation in free flight."

    Na-Pahrthal looked at Ka-Paldyn, and his eyes widened.

    "Forgive me, Captain," he said after a moment, "but from how far out do you intend to insert them?"

    "Given the difference in sensor signatures," Ka-Paldyn replied, "our boats should be able to take them to within two light-minutes without being detected, Sir. Call it thirty-six million kilometers."

    "And the maximum safe velocity for your EW suits in free flight?" the major asked.

    "Approximately one hundred kilometers per second, bearing in mind suit reaction mass limitations and the need to decelerate to rest relative to the Bolo's transport without being detected," Ka-Paldyn said flatly.

    "Then the flight time will be around a hundred hours?" Na-Pahrthal said.

    "Correct, Sir," Ka-Paldyn said. "And to anticipate the rest of your questions, if I may, that does in fact mean that they will exhaust the endurance of their suits before we can possibly recover them. Second Platoon understands that none of them is likely to return from this mission."

    "I hope," Ka-Frahkan said into the silence Ka-Paldyn's words had produced, "that they'll be wrong about that." Everyone looked at him, and he flicked his ears. "I fully realize that the odds are poor. However, Second Platoon's secondary assignment, after destroying the Bolo transport, will be to seize control of the industrial modules the Humans have deployed in planetary orbit. Although it's a secondary assignment, it's also an important one. Specifically, I want control of those facilities before some Human aboard them realizes their colony is about to be annihilated and destroys the modules to prevent them from falling into our hands. And if Second Platoon succeeds in taking one or more of those modules, they'll be able to sustain themselves on their prizes' environmental capability until we can relieve them."

    "As you say, Sir," Ka-Paldyn said with a seated half-bow, but all of the officers in the briefing room knew at least some of Second Platoon's troopers would exhaust their suits' endurance long before they took their objectives.

    "There's an additional reason for us to secure control of all of the Human transports, or at least to destroy them before they're able to reactivate their drive rooms and flee the system," Ka-Frahkan said, picking back up the thread of his briefing.

    "After discussing this matter at some length with Captain Na-Tharla, I have determined that it is in the Empire's best interest for us to plant a colony of our own in this star system. After we've destroyed the Human presence here -- in the course of which we will undoubtedly suffer casualties, possibly severe ones, unfortunately -- we should still have sufficient personnel, male and female, to establish a population with sufficient genetic diversity to sustain itself permanently. I intend to return to the Empire aboard Death Ascending, assuming we're able to make the necessary repairs out of the captured Human industrial base. I will, however, be detaching the majority of the Brigade's personnel to remain behind to hold and populate this star system for the Empire."

    He looked around the conference table once more, watching their faces as he revealed his full intentions for the first time. Ka-Somal looked almost disappointed at the prospect of being left behind, but Ka-Frahkan had anticipated that. He was thoroughly familiar with Ka-Somal's blazing hatred for all things Human, and he'd known from the beginning that the infantry colonel would reject any chance to remain behind, where there would be no more Humans to kill. For the others, though, his decision offered the possibility of survival with honor . . . but only at the expense of permanent separation from family, clan, and all they had ever known. That would be an almost intolerable price for any member of the People, yet he was confident they would pay it if he told them to.

    "My plans to colonize this system for the People hinge, however," he continued, "on our ability to prevent any FTL-capable Human vessel from escaping back to the Concordiat. Captain Na-Tharla tells me that it's unlikely any of the Human transports is currently supplied for such a lengthy voyage, but it's certainly not impossible. And if a Human vessel does succeed in returning to the Concordiat with news of events here, then it's also possible a Human squadron might be dispatched to eliminate our own colony in this system. I consider the probability of such a decision on their part to be no more than even, but it would require only a cruiser or two to deal with any defenses we could cobble up from what we may capture.

    "Because of that, it's essential that we also take or destroy the second Bolo transport, whose drive room is very much on-line," he said. "Fortunately, it's much closer to us than the one in orbit, since the Humans appear to be using it to assist their resource extraction efforts in the vicinity of the asteroid belt. That's the good news. The bad news is that it doesn't appear to be following any fixed schedule or routing. Unlike the transport orbiting the planet, we cannot predict what its precise position will be at the moment our attack commences. Offsetting that somewhat, the fact that it clearly doesn't have a Bolo embarked means its sensor capability will be greatly inferior to Second Platoon's target, so we can get closer to it with the special ops boats.

    "Beginning as soon as possible, Rahlan's First Platoon will embark aboard those boats and take up positions from which, hopefully, it will be able to shadow the second transport at reasonably close range. Coordination with Second Platoon will be difficult at such a distance but it will also be critical. The Bolo orbiting the planet must be destroyed before any other action on our part. Therefore, First Platoon cannot enter the second transport's effective sensor envelope until after Second Platoon has attacked. We anticipate that even if there's some small delay between the two attacks, the Humans aboard the transport -- which is probably operating with reduced crew, given how badly the Humans must need every pair of hands for the construction of their new planetary installations -- will still be taken by surprise by First Platoon's attack. In any case, they'll be at a severe disadvantage against fully armed, elite troopers, and we believe the chance of capturing the ship is extremely high."

    He gazed around the briefing room once more, then flipped his ears in satisfaction at what he saw in their eyes.

    "Very well, Gentlemen," he said. "That's the bare bones of our intentions. Now to more specific details. Colonel Na-Salth?"

    "Yes, Sir," Na-Salth said, and touched a button, calling up a holographic map of the landing site on the target planet which Ka-Frahkan and Na-Tharla had selected. "Colonel Na-Lythan," he continued, "once Death Ascending has made planetfall, your Regiment will debark."

    He touched another button, and military mapping icons appeared in the holo.

    "In conjunction with Colonel Ka-Somal's infantry, you will establish a basic defensive perimeter along this line," he continued, indicating the positions on the map. "After that, you will deploy reconnaissance elements along these axes . . . ."

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